Things sure do change fast around here. One week it’s Rick Perry, the next it’s Herman Cain. Now it’s . . . Newt Gingrich?
The Republican voter is like a starving man at a free buffet. He gorges on this, then that, then spies a steaming plump pork roast at the far end of the table. Charge! (No anatomical parallels intended. I’m a little hungry myself.)
The Newt Surge, deserving as it is of Uppercase Respect, has thrown everyone off — except, that is, Gingrich, who seems to be savoring his own inevitability. But of course he’s leading the polls. He dominates in debates. He’s been there, done that. He’s even nice to his opponents, refusing to criticize them or play along with moderators, who, in addition to being members of the loathed mainstream media, are intellectual chicken hawks trying to stir up a fight that they can then smugly condemn.
The conundrum for the heretofore unmentioned front-runner, Mitt Romney, is to determine whether Gingrich’s rise is a mere appetizer to Romney’s eventual banquet or a serious threat to his presumed nomination. Romney may have a more serious problem than is conceivable, given the trolley of baggage that Gingrich has to drag around. The largest pieces include: taking huge sums in consulting fees from Freddie Mac; ethics violations from his days as speaker of the House; an extramarital affair with a Hill staffer — now his wife, Callista — while he was trying to impeach Bill Clinton for lying about his extramarital dalliance with an intern.
Gingrich’s rise may indicate a populace that considers the nation’s challenges more important than personal foibles. Or, more likely, his surge is an affirmation of the Republican base’s preference for a good ol’ boy from the South rather than an exotic from a vacation reef out in the middle of the ocean.
If exotic got us into this mess, then mightn’t the antidote be a Georgian who knows his way around the Federalist Papers? The anyone-but-Mitt crowd can overlook a satchel of sins if the alternative is a flip-flopping cultist from Up There. (Please bear in mind, observation is not endorsement.)
Indeed, a man who has fallen from grace and arisen from the political ash heap is more than an ecumenical metaphor. To many Republican voters, Gingrich is “one of us,” a familiar face, a known quantity. Most important, he has done the single thing that transcends sin. He has confessed and repented.
If Christian Americans hate a sin, they love a sinner. Let’s face it: Forgiveness feels good. Gingrich not only has been forthright in admitting his flaws, but he also converted to Catholicism. Who knows? In another generation, Republicans may take Mormonism off the cult list.
One doesn’t have to be a Catholic to appreciate the sublime duet of confession and redemption. The ability to shed the burden of sin in a confessional booth, submit to the humility of shame and accept the grace of forgiveness is an appealing exit from the turmoil of personal transgression. No wonder the masses flock to St. Peter’s Square. (I’m feeling a little tug myself.)
Bottom line: Most Americans would rather embrace a man who has fallen and climbed back to his feet than one who has never stubbed his toe on temptation. The successful protagonist is always flawed. In Romney breaking news: He removes the cheese from his pizza but has a weakness for chocolate milk. Mr. Squeaky not only has no skeletons in the closet; he has no closets.
Republicans can characterize their preference for Gingrich as the lure of Big Ideas, but this would be more justification than explanation. Gingrich does have big ideas; they’re just mostly bad ones. At least they are untested and, in such precarious times, perhaps too risky. His two-of-everything model for health care and Social Security, for example — wherein we keep the old system but also create a new one — sounds spectacular in concept. We love a choice. But implementation is a Trojan horse of another color. If one system is breaking the bank, how much would two put us in the hole?
A few weeks ago, Gingrich was the quiet gnome on the debate panel, patiently waiting for his turn to dazzle. He was the sage father figure, certain of his certainty, benignly tolerant of the petulant children whose company he was forced to keep. Today, he is the prince of tides.
But the tides ebb and flow, and the sands shift. And well they might again.